The Comparison Game

Homily at Milton Keynes, for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

I’m not OK. You’re not OK. But that’s OK.

In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns us not to praise ourselves highly, especially in comparison with others. If we do, we run all sorts of risks.

Earlier this weekend, I was at a seminar in Oxford University – a reunion for science graduates. The dean of the faculty was boasting of just having welcomed this year’s new intake of students, the ‘best of the best’ – each one discovering they were no longer a big fish in a small pond. That might be a humbling experience for the new undergraduates, but the department, already one of the best in the world, wanted to be recognised as the best in the world. A little later, 5 minutes into the lecture, one of the staff of one of the best faculties in the world stopped, apologised to the audience, and declared: “I’ve got the wrong version of the talk on the screen!” He then proceeded use a particularly nerdy method to first fail, and then succeed, to get the right version running. I think that was the moment the audience enjoyed most; and it reinforced what I had noticed in my student days, that the people who might be the best in the world at understanding how the world works are not always best at making the world work!

So when we praise ourselves too highly, we set ourselves up for a fall. But Jesus is seeking to save us from more than mere social embarrassment – he wants to rescue us from the terrible comparison game where we suffer constant anxiety from measuring ourselves against other people.

Now, in both sports and science, competition has its place. Few athletes set a world record which remains unbroken for decades; all athletes know that they will only be world champions for a short span of peak fitness. The unhappiest athlete is a silver medalist: while they kick themselves for missing out on gold, the bronze medallist (who wasn’t aiming for silver) is smiling at missing out on being placed 4th and going home with nothing to show for it. Only one person or team can be top of the league at any one time, and few can maintain top rank forever. So it is very foolish to pin our aspirations to being the best. Instead, a great question to ask, is “Did I do good?”

St Paul asked himself that question, and the answer was in the affirmative. “I have fought the good fight to the end. I have run the race to the finish. I have kept the faith.” Each one of us, at the sunset of our lives, will meet Our Lord Jesus face-to-face. We will find ourselves asking only one question as he gazes upon us’: “Did I do what you called me, personally, to do?” You’ll have heard the famous quote from Cardinal Newman, that God has created me to do some definite service not entrusted to any other person. That’s what matters – not that I was better than anyone else, but that I was the best version of myself.

There was once a town high street with three barber’s shops on it. The first barber, seeking to attract more trade, placed a sign in the window: “This is the best Barber Shop in Milton Keynes!” The second barber, knowing he had to be competitive, also placed a sign: “This is the best Barber Shop in England!” The third barber was a humble man, a devout Christian, and unwilling to engage in this kind of one-upmanship. But his business was losing customers. How could he respond without terrible pride? He thought and prayed for a long time, and eventually placed a sign in his window, and indeed his business went right up. What did it say? “This is the best Barber Shop on this High Street!”

I’m not OK. You’re not OK. We’re not OK because sometimes we make selfish choices – but when we realise that we can take our guilt to confession, and God will always offer us a fresh start if we seek to overcome our selfishness. We’re not OK because we sometimes have impossible dreams about who we should be; we feel ashamed of our inadequacy. But strangely enough, God loves us just the way we are, and Jesus died so that we could enter heaven.

God has high expectations of us. He wants to be able to reward us for doing exceptional good deeds. But we need to be clear about one thing – Heaven is where we get rewarded for the good we do, but going to heaven is not a reward for our goodness. So here’s one more story to leave you with. It’s about Paddy – a man who was very active in his church community, and died in his 70s.

When Paddy reached the Pearly Gates, he expected them to swing open in front of him. Instead, he was rather bemused to find St Peter standing in front of him with a clipboard.

“OK,” said St Peter, “here’s how it works. In order to get into heaven, you need 100 points. You tell me all the reasons we should let you into heaven, and I will add up the points.”

“Right,” said Paddy. “For starters, I have never missed Mass on a Sunday. Every weekend of my life, I’ve been at church.”

“Excellent,” said St Peter. “One point.”

Paddy’s face fell. “Only one?” he thought – but he didn’t say it out loud.

“I’ve always supported church,” said Paddy, “and ever since I started earning a decent wage I’ve given 5% of my income to church. And I used Gift Aid!”

“Great,” said St Peter. “That’s another point.”

Paddy was beginning to feel rather desperate now. What would earn him another 98 points? He had one more thing…

“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” he said, “stepping in to stop fights. And if I’ve been arguing with someone, I’ve always been the first to step forward to make up.”

“Wonderful,” said St Peter, “the boss is really keen on that sort of thing. That gets you another three points – you’ve scored five so far.”

“FIVE POINTS?” scowled Paddy. “For all that, just five? If I’m ever going to get through those gates, it will only be by the grace of God !”

At that moment, a fanfare played and the gates opened. “That’s the correct answer,” said St Peter, “only God’s grace is worth 100 points. Come on in!”

The Paddy story is not original! You can find versions online by Carey, Mascarenhas and that most prolific of authors, Anon.

Consider Moses

Homily at the Merthyr Catholic Parish for the conclusion of the 2019 Sion Community Parish Mission on the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Today, the Sion Community Mission in Merthy Tydfil comes to an end. Today, the mission of the Roman Catholic Parish of Merthyr begins anew, because the Lord has work for this parish to do. So keep calm, and carry on!

But carry on doing what?

Consider Moses. Today’s first reading is a brief episode from his life. Now, Moses experienced a few days of great triumph in his life – the day God spoke to him from a Burning Bush, the day when Pharaoh, King of Egypt, finally allowed the Israelites their freedom, or the day God spoke to him and handed down the Ten Commandments. But Moses also knew days of great grief – the day he became a refugee after killing an Egyptian slave-driver, or the day when the Israelites worshipped an idol, and he learned he would have to lead them through the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. But I expect during those 40 years, most of Moses’ days were the same-old same-old, getting on with the everyday task of leading a community, fed by manna from heaven. In the same way, the future of this parish will include days of great triumph, days of great grief, but above all the routine of priest and people gathering together, Sunday by Sunday, fed by the Bread of Heaven.

Moses didn’t receive all his inspiration directly from God, though. He also had to keep his eyes on the world around him. We’re told that whenever Moses raised his hands, the Israelites did well in the battle. Whenever he let them droop, they started losing. No prophet came to tell Moses he had to keep his arms in the air – he learned from experience which of his actions has a positive effect, and which had a negative effect. You’ve probably heard the saying that ‘insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result’. One of the ways the Lord speaks to us is through reality – we use the eyes and the brains we’ve been given to reflect on the work that we’ve done.

So our question today, is where do you go next, priest and people working together? I can’t tell you exactly what you need to do in this parish, because it’s not my parish. But when I was training to be a priest, I did live for four months just west of here, in Aberdare. I met a lot of elderly ladies who belonged to the various chapels in the town. Those chapels can seat hundreds of people, and were extended after the great Welsh Revival of 1904. But now a handful of ladies worship there, and they use the back room because they can’t afford to heat, let alone repair, the main worship space.

I’m no prophet, but I’m going to use the brain God has given me to imagine three ways the future could unfold here. Some of us don’t like thinking about the future – we’d prefer to be an ostrich and bury our head in the sand – but Moses and his supporters had to imagine a better future so they could secure success for their people.

The first future is the one where you carry on doing things just the way you’re used to doing them.

We can get a bit superstitious about the way our Church works. We can relax and think, “As long as we baptise and confirm the children, they will come back eventually.” But that would be naïve. 50 years of experience is telling us that in most cases, they don’t come back. Moses didn’t say “I will let my arms droop, God will win the battle eventually.” Rather, his support team saw what was working and said, “We’ll keep your arms aloft for as long as it takes until we win this battle.”

So yes, we need to persevere and persist in doing what it takes to keep this parish going… but if we keep on doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve got. And what have we got? Not only in Merthyr, but across Wales, the Catholic Church is very good at losing old people slowly, and young people quickly. I’ll say that again: the Catholic Church is very good at losing old people slowly, and young people quickly. If we keep on doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve got. Is that what you want in Merthyr?

If we carry on with “church as usual”, the congregations in your four churches will continue to shrink slowly. The income for each church will go down as fewer people give. Now, it’s an expensive business, keeping a church open. I’ve been running parishes in South Wales for 12 years and I can tell you that each building costs around £15,000 a year for annual running costs – insurance, fire extinguisher servicing, other safety inspections and so on. And that’s before all the big, expensive jobs like fixing roofs and replacing gutters which have to be done once in a generation. So you will reach a point, like the pious ladies of Aberdare, where you have to have Mass in the sacristy or close the church altogether.

You can choose this future – you can choose to be turkeys hoping that Christmas will never come. But Christmas does come eventually, and turkeys never enjoy it.

The second future is one where you decide to make more efficient use of your resources, coming together in one or two buildings. That could be a new building, which would be a fresh start for everyone, or some of you could bravely choose to transfer to a church which doesn’t have the comfort of being your ‘home’ church. You could then use the annual running costs which you’ve saved to invest in the future of the parish – employing a professional musician or a children’s liturgy worker.

Making such changes reminds me of a flock of geese, migrating from one place to another. You’ve probably seen geese flying through the sky, in a V-formation. One goose is out in front, with the hardest task. That goose has to break through the air, creating a slipstream, and lead the others in the right direction. The other geese can honk from behind to encourage the leader to keep going. Only by working together and following the leader can the flock make a safe migration.

Today’s Gospel clearly points us to the need to be persistent. In preparing this homily I asked Canon Barry what the most helpful thing would be to keep the parish going, and he mentioned the need for more resources. So here’s a question for you. I can either give you a golden egg, or a goose that lays golden eggs. Which of you would prefer the egg? And which would prefer the goose? The egg represents fundraising activities. You can choose to pour your limited resources into fundraising activities – coffee mornings, jumble sales and the like – and yes, you will raise some money. Once you’ve spent it on building repairs you have to start over and do the same thing again. The goose represents missionary work. That’s harder to do. You have to look after the goose, and it might kick and hiss a bit. But if you pour your limited resources into inviting people who have no previous connection with the Catholic Church, or working with Catholics who have fallen out of practice to help them come back, then you raise the number of regular givers in the congregation – more geese laying more golden eggs!

Before I tell you about the third possible future, a story. One day an egg fell into a turkey nest. The mother turkey sat on the egg until it hatched and raised the chick. The chick followed all the other turkeys, scratching around for food on the ground, until one day a golden eagle swooped down from the sky. “Hello!” she said, “What are you doing down here? You’re not a turkey, you’re an eagle like me.” And for the first time in his life, the chick flapped his wings, soared into the sky, and discovered a beautiful valley below, filled with luscious food and beautiful things.

The third future is one where we ask some big questions. “What makes Catholic parishes flourish?” The good news is, there are Catholic parishes which are growing, some growing in strength, some growing in number. The best way to ensure that all four of your churches remain open is to ensure they grow. No bishop is going to close a church which is growing! I’m not going to tell you, from this pulpit, what those growing churches are doing right. This isn’t my parish, so I don’t know what would work well here. There’s a wonderful resource called the Internet which will let you find out about successful Catholic parishes, and use your local knowledge to consider which ideas might fit. But I can tell you that the places where parishes thrive are the places where the parish priest and the people are working together towards a shared vision. Everyone recognises that Moses is the leader, and when he is doing something that works, his support team members step in and hold up his arms for as long as it takes!

You have a Moses leading this community. His name is Canon Barry. The Catholic Church is not a democracy… just as God chose Moses, with all his gifts and all his weaknesses, to lead the Israelites, so Archbishop George has chosen this priest to be your leader. You might not like all the decisions he makes – that’s human nature. The day might come when he, or his successor, has to make unpopular choices about future arrangements. But your success as a parish depends on getting behind your leader, and, like Moses, giving him unwavering support. He is the lead goose on your spiritual migration, and he needs you to honk your encouragement. He needs the vision from the golden eagles among you who have time to survey the landscape and see the possible paths ahead. He needs you to find the geese who will join the flock to make it stronger. And above all, he needs your prayers and your practical support. Those of you who have hosted a member of the Mission Team know that during their stay, the missionary offered to pray with you for God’s blessing on your life. I’ve been staying this week in St Mary’s Priory. I’d like to invite you to join me in praying, now, for God’s blessing and strength for your Moses, your parish priest, Canon Barry English.

The God Who Speaks

Message at the Merthyr Parish Mission, Wednesday 16th October 2019 – theme “Speak, Lord!”, based on Luke 20:9-14.

I wonder what the word “God” means to you? For some people, “God” refers to a lofty philosophical idea – the ground of all being, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. There’s truth in all these ideas, but such a God can seem remote, abstract, distant.

For others, the very idea of God is mysterious. One day a Mum asked her daughter what she was drawing.

“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”

“But, darling, no one knows what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

Jesus used pictures to show us what God was like, too – but he painted pictures with words.

A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time.

Sometimes, God can feel far far away. Our Lord Jesus knew that when he told the story we’ve just heard. We are the tenants in the vineyard – but the owner, who has gone to another country for a long time, represents God. It’s not that the owner doesn’t care – in fact, he keeps sending messengers to the vineyard – but it’s just the way things work. He’s decided to trust us with his vineyard, and his presence is elsewhere.

In my life, there’s only one moment where I can say that God spoke to me really clearly. I was still a seminarian at the time, and I’d gone to Glasgow for a week’s holiday. I didn’t have a smartphone, it was Sunday morning, and I wanted to go to Mass. So I got on a bus towards Glasgow City Centre, thinking I would either spot a Catholic Church, or else could get out and ask for directions. When it was clear I was in the heart of the city, with no sign of a church, I raised my hand to push the bell-button.

A voice spoke to me.

Stay on the bus for one more stop. 

Well, I had nothing to lose. I would still be in the heart of the city, so I put my hand down. The bus stopped anyway, but I stayed on and the journey continued. Then the driver called out:

St Andrew’s Cathedral!

A middle-aged woman jumped up, and I followed her off the bus. Was she going to the Catholic Cathedral? Yes. Would she show me the way? Yes. But it also turned out she needed someone to talk to, and after Mass we ended up having a long chat over lunch in a supermarket café. We’re still in touch today, but it was clear that God needed me to be there, at that moment in her life, to give her some emotional support. In my prayer life since then, I’ve often offered God the chance to speak to me in the same way if we wants me to bless other people, but so far that remains the only time I can say God has spoken to me unexpectedly, as clearly as if I’d heard a voice speaking aloud.

God has other ways of speaking, of course. During the last few year, every time I volunteered to work with Sion Community, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. This was God’s way of hinting I should be doing full-time mission work – and to my astonishment, Archbishop George agreed.

Then there have been times in my life when I’ve just known that God was trying to communicate something, without quite knowing how I knew. For instance, the time I decided that the right way to be a priest was to apply to Cardiff Diocese, or a time as a layman when I knew God was thanking me for serving faithfully at Sunday Mass – I didn’t hear a voice on those occasions, but I knew what God was saying. And then again sometimes God speaks through circumstances, when one door closes and another door opens.

God doesn’t always communicate how, when or where we’d like him to do so – but God does choose to communicate. That’s what Jesus was trying to show us in today’s Gospel. The owner of the vineyard keeps sending servants to see how we’re doing at managing things according to God’s instructions. The whole Bible tells of the many times and places when God has spoken.

Way back in the ancient history of God’s people, a powerful leader called Abraham was in charge of his extended family, his servants and his flocks and herds of animals in a place called Ur, in what we’d now call Iraq. God spoke to Abraham and said “Leave what is familiar, and take your people and animals to the land I have chosen for you.” Amazingly Abraham obeyed, and set out on a long journey, which ultimately brought him to Hebron – a town which today is in the West Bank, 30km south of Jerusalem. God promised that because of Abraham’s obedience, he would guide and protect Abraham’s family line.

Joseph, who was Abraham’s great-grandson, famously had a coat of many colours – but was also able to interpret dreams. Now, not all dreams are messages from God, but it is a way that God speaks, and Joseph had a special gift for understanding what God was saying. At times, this got him into trouble – for bragging that his brothers would bow down and honour him, he was thrown down a well and sold into slavery – but it also saved his family. The King of Egypt dreamed of seven thin cows gobbling up seven fat cows, and Joseph understood God was warning them to store up food in good years to prepare for a coming famines. His 11 brothers did end up bowing to him when they came to Egypt searching for corn to help them survive!

Hundreds of years later, Abraham’s descendants had grown to become a tribe enslaved in Egypt. Moses famously survived an attempt to kill him when he was an infant and fled into exile after killing a violent Egyptian slave-driver. 40 years later, as Moses was minding his own business tending sheep, the voice of God spoke to him from a Burning Bush. Thus began Moses’ journey as the great law-giver, with whom God spoke face-to-face. It took another 40 years for God’s people to cross into the Promised Land, and Moses died before they could cross the River Jordan to enter their God-given home.

More centuries passed. The Holy Land was ruled by kings who were not always faithful to God’s law. God sent prophets to remind people to keep God’s laws. Some prophets focussed on the way poor and powerless people were treated – if no-one else would speak up for them, God would. Other prophets focussed on keeping God’s law – because in every generation, someone would try to set up idols in honour of foreign gods, and often enough kings with foreign wives gave their approval. Famously the Prophet Elijah challenged a thousand prophets of Ba’al to a contest. The true God, he said, would send fire from heaven to burn up an animal laid on the altar. Ba’al’s prophets tried all afternoon to call fire from heaven and failed. Elijah first drenched the altar with water, and then called down so much fire from heaven it was consumed anyway!

Three of the largest books in the Bible are named after prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. When Our Lord talks about three servants being beaten and rejected, he might be inviting us to think of these three prophets trying and failing to encourage all the Jewish people to return to following God’s Law. Our opening song, O the Word of the Lord, is based on the first chapter of Jeremiah, where the young prophet experiences God calling him to speak his Word to friend and foe alike.

What does the owner of the vineyard do when he sees that all these servants have been unsuccessful? Give up? No! He send his own Son!

Jesus is not a messenger from God. Jesus IS God’s message to us. He is God-the-Son, and therefore the human face of God-the-Father. When Jesus speaks, God is speaking to us directly, both in the human language on Jesus’ lips, and the human actions in Jesus’ life. Once, the Apostle Philip said to Jesus, “Show us the Father!” and Jesus replied, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” That doesn’t mean God-the-Father and Our Lord Jesus are the same person, but it does mean that the Son is the perfect image of the Father.

How do we know what Jesus said and what Jesus did? We have the Bible, which gives us the ‘honest truth’ of what Jesus said and did. The Catholic Church doesn’t claim the Bible is 100% correct on questions of history or science, but when it comes to understanding who God is, and how God wants us to live a life which is good, we can rely on the Bible. There are also truths that go back to the age of Jesus and the Apostles but which didn’t get written down back then, which the Church has carried in the way we do things: we call this Tradition. That’s how we know, for example, that the bread used to become the Body of Christ must be wheat bread, not any other grain, and that a man who has become a bishop is not free to get married. After all, St John’s Gospel finishes by reminding us if everything Jesus said and did was written down, there wouldn’t be room in all the books in the world!

“Speak, Lord!”

God does speak. But what is he trying to say to us?

It’s so easy to misunderstand the voice of God. At our Family Service on Sunday, we remembered how God spoke to the young boy Samuel, who misunderstood and thought his master Eli was calling – that’s one way of missing God’s message. Samuel’s problem was that he wasn’t expecting God to speak. Our problem might be that we’re not expecting the things that God is trying to say!

Do any of you play fantasy football? It’s fun to assemble the dream team who would win the league… if only you were the master of the universe! And it’s quite easy to daydream about relationships… you can imagine how your ideal wife would look or how your perfect Prince Charming would behave. The only problem is, no woman or man can ever quite measure up to your expectations. If you build your life on your daydreams, you’re bound to end up disappointed. And we can do exactly the same with God! We can create a dream god who then disappoints us by failing to fulfil all our wishes. It’s easy to get angry when our daydream god has let us down… but that god was never real in the first place!

I would very much like to believe in a God who has dealt with all sickness or disease, all arguments and wars, and never lets anything bad like that happen in the world. But as soon as I turn on the news this evening I’ll be reminded that that kind of god doesn’t exist. So you know what? There’s absolutely no point in believing in a God like that!

This leaves us with two possibilities: either there is no God; or there is a God who exists alongside all the problems of the world at large and my life in particular and yet wants to do something about it. What is God going to do about it? He won’t fix it in the way I wish he would. It’s no good saying, “God if you really love me you won’t let my granny die” or “If you really love me you won’t let me lose my job” because that’s not how God works. No, it’s because God really loves us that he sent the prophets and then sent Jesus. It’s because Jesus died for you that the door to heaven is open.

I have some friends who like to give me a big hug, and others who prefer to give me a kiss. If I try to force them to do something that doesn’t come naturally, they won’t feel comfortable… and if I keep insisting that they do something they weren’t comfortable with, that relationship isn’t going to last for very long. If love isn’t freely given, it’s not love.

So – does God love me? Yes! If I listen to God speaking, I know that he does! But where is he speaking?

There are lots of verses in the Bible where God does want to speak to us, so say that He is Our Father and he does love us. We have to let God be God and love us his way. So let’s try our hardest tonight to listen to God. Let’s not be blocked by our anger about how we feel God might have let us down. Let’s not tell God that he is only allowed to love us in a certain way. Let’s be open to the message that God wants to give to us.

In the basket in front of the altar, we’ve taken many messages from God, all from the Bible, so you can each take one. We’re going to invite you now to come and receive a word from the Father who loves you.


Grateful Lepers

Homily at the Merthyr Catholic Parish for the start of the 2019 Sion Community Parish Mission on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

What kind of leper are you?

Maybe you’ve never seen yourself as a leper before.

Maybe you’re not sure what a leper is.

Leprosy, common in the days when Jesus was alive, was a disease feared in the way we feared HIV/AIDS in the 1990s – a deadly disease we hadn’t yet learned to control. Anyone with leprosy was an outcast, set apart from the rest of human society.

All of us here, today, suffer from another deadly disease. That disease is called sin. Now I’m not claiming that we’re all murderers or burglars or anything like that… but I am saying that all of us have slipped, now and then, and made at least some small choices which are selfish. And that’s a problem for God – because God is perfect. So from God’s point of view, we’re all lepers. Every single one of us – because we’re all tainted by sin. None of us is perfect, and only perfect people deserve heaven. The Good News is that we know how God deals with lepers – he reaches out and offers us healing.

I’m guessing that most of you here, today, are Catholics. If you’re not Catholic, you’re probably thinking of becoming one, or here to support someone who is – either way, you support the Catholic faith. And I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Catholics are lepers in today’s society.

Those of you with longer memories will remember the days when most of the people in the Valleys religiously went to chapel, and looked with suspicion on the Catholics. Famously here in Merthyr there’s a road sign to St Illtyd’s where the Welsh version reads literally not “Catholic Church” but “Papist Church.” “Plant Mair!” we were called – “Children of Mary!” I’ll take that insult any day.

Today we face a different set of insults. Our society has changed to the point where half the people around us claim to have ‘no religion’ and look with suspicion on those who do. When we hold fast to our values about marriage and sexuality, we find ourselves increasingly out of step with the world around us. Our Lord did warn us we would be hated if we hold fast to his teachings, so this shouldn’t surprise us too much – but it does mean that to be a Catholic in 21st Century Wales is to be a leper.

So I come back to my opening question: What kind of leper are you?

Today’s Gospel offers us two paths: the healed leper and the grateful leper.

We can be like the 9 lepers who received their healing and went away rejoicing. They were good and obedient members of their Jewish religion. They had obediently cut themselves off from wider society when they realised they had leprosy. They obediently set off in the direction of the Temple when Jesus told them to do so – and only then, because of their act of faith, did they receive the healing.

We can be like that – we come to Mass every Sunday, we can go to confession every Easter and Christmas, just doing what the Church asks of us and trusting that God will receive us into heaven, clean from our sins, saved because of our faithfulness. But was Our Lord Jesus satisfied with the 9 lepers? No! Was he looking for something more? Yes!

When we die, we will each meet Jesus at the gate of heaven. I don’t want him to let me in with a sad smile, nodding that I’ve done just enough. I want him to beam at me and say “Well done, good and faithful servant!” St Paul understood that, when he was writing to Timothy. First, we must ‘own’ Jesus – we must at least be able to say ‘I was faithful to you by loving other people and being at Mass’. “If we have died with him, then we shall live with him.” But more is on offer for those who persevere. “If we hold firm, then we shall reign with him.”

I don’t just want to live with Christ in heaven – I want to reign with him!

There was one leper who understood that. When he received his healing, he saw what Jesus was offering, and he ran back to say thank you. He, and he alone, realised how good it was to put Jesus at the centre of your life. It didn’t matter that he was from the ‘wrong’ tribe – a Samaritan, not a Jew – what mattered was that he recognised who Jesus truly is.

We’re now entering a week of mission, Each one of you is invited to come to the special events which we’re offering you this week. So the challenge to you, people of Merthyr, is this:

Can you do better than lepers?

Will more than 10% of you come to the services?

Look out for the trap which nearly caught Na’aman. He went to the prophet Elisha because he too was a leper; God’s message was to wash in the River Jordan. Na’aman’s first reaction was pride: “We have better rivers near my home, why should I go there?” But that’s where God’s blessing was for Na’aman. In the same way, we might be tempted to think, “I don’t need to go to the Gurnos to meet Jesus!” That would be a pity, because Jesus is going to the Gurnos and would like to meet with you there!

Fortunately, Na’aman swallowed his pride. His healing came because he was humble enough to meet God somewhere else – on God’s own turf. He literally took that turf home so he could keep worshipping the God of Israel.

Our theme this week is: “Speak Lord! Your servant is listening!”

The Lord will be speaking at St Aloysius on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. He will be speaking at St Illtyd’s on Saturday morning. He will be speaking at the morning Masses in each of the churches. He is speaking to you right now, and inviting you to come.

What kind of leper are you?

The kind that does ‘just enough’ for God?

The kind that won’t go to another church because it’s not yours?

Or the kind that runs to Jesus rejoicing?

Don’t settle for less than what God is calling you to!


Invitation Always

Homily at Sion Community chapel for the 2019 New Evangelisation Training Summit #NESummit19 on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

On this very weekend, fifteen years ago, I was in trouble.

At the time, I was a student at seminary. We were allowed to go out after Sunday lunch – but we had to be back for evening prayer at half past six.

With another student, I had driven to a meeting to plan a youth retreat. One of the young women involved had asked for a lift home. I worked out that we had time – but only just – to drop her off and get back for evening prayer. After all, she needed our help, and it was the right thing to do.

We got lost!

Eventually, we found the right road. But we arrived back at the seminary five minutes after the start of Evening Prayer. The other student and I had to make a decision – should we go into the chapel late, and hope no one noticed? Or should we say our own evening prayer separately?

We chickened out and decided not to go into chapel. So we took out our prayer books and said the official Prayer of the Church together.

Near the end of Sunday Evening Prayer, there’s a line which is taken from the Gospel of the day.* It was just as well we hadn’t gone in to chapel that evening, because we collapsed in fits of laughter when we read out loud the words: “We are useless servants – we have only done our duty!”

Laughter aside, there is a serious matter at hand here. Jesus wants us to know that God expects us to do our duty. On that day, my colleague and I were preparing for a youth festival where young people would be encouraged to know Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. Today, we are gathered in this chapel because we want our fellow parishioners to be inspired to share God’s Good News. We want many members of our local parishes and dioceses to join us, confidently proclaiming the message of Jesus anew to those who have heard it but failed to heed its call.

We will face obstacles, even from the clergy. Yesterday, we heard a seminar from Fr James Mallon about how to promote evangelisation when your parish priest seems reluctant. Sometimes it feels like the obstacles come from a higher level, too. Just last week, a story popped up on my Facebook feed claiming that Pope Francis had rebuked a woman for encouraging two people to become Catholics. Oh dear! Can it be true, that the Pope doesn’t want us to evangelise?

The first rule of the Internet is always: check your sources! A little digging found the true report. In this case a woman who belonged to an unnamed movement had proudly presented her ‘converts’ to Pope Francis, in effect saying, “Look what I did! These people are Catholic because of me!”

The Pope was clearly concerned by her personal attitude, and perhaps also because he knew something about the lay movement she belonged to. In that particular moment, he discerned – rightly or wrongly – that these converts had been brought into the Church by the woman’s pushy personality rather than a pure attraction. Therefore, he is reported as saying, in that moment:

“Madam, evangelisation yes, proselytism no.”

Pope Francis, 5 Sept 2019, Maputo, Mozambique

What is proselytism? The Catholic definition is set out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in a joint study document with the World Council of Churches. In short we’re doing it wrong when:

  • we don’t respect the existing faith of a person, or target people with a particular belief;
  • we speak negatively about other religious traditions;
  • we exert undue physical, emotional or moral pressure, or exploit intellectual or emotional weakness;
  • we offer beneficial incentives to new converts.

Historically, over the last 200 years, Catholic Church in Great Britain has grown by attraction and immigration. For migrants, it’s simple; their faith binds them together and the church is where they can find a safe space to speak their own language and meet others of their own culture. For converts it’s more complicated: over the 12 years I’ve been in parish ministry and responsible for RCIA, I reckon that four out of five converts have been attracted by the ‘nice caring Catholics’ they’ve met; only one in five has had a spiritual or intellectual conversion to what the Catholic Church holds dear.

In that respect, many of our converts are like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve met. I often ask people to tell me the story of how their own religion has changed their life for the better. The kind of answer I hear is almost always that they met some kind people from that religious group who helped them in an hour of need. The helped person joins because they feel wanted, not because of the doctrines of the group.

This is as true for Catholics as it is for other religions. I always say to such aspiring members: “I’m glad you’ve met some nice and supportive Catholics. One day you’re going to meet some horrible Catholics. Do you know what will make you want to stay in the Church when that happens? If so, you’re ready to take the next step.” Attraction on its own is not enough to guard against the day something repulsive happens. We must use that attraction to open up conversations about Jesus, and invite people to choose to follow Him.

This weekend has focussed on our calling to preach the Gospel. The call is the same as it was when St Paul wrote to young Timothy: “Never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord; guard and pass on the knowledge of Christ.” Some of you will have met discouragement and disappointment; but you are here this weekend which means you are seriously considering running NES2020 in your local community. Don’t expect any thanks for this. You are useless servants, only doing your duty. But persevere. Maybe no-one else in the church will thank you, but the Home Mission Office and the Lord will!

There is a middle ground between attraction and proselytism. It’s not always enough to be nice, kind, Catholics and wait for people to ask us why. We do need to speak about our prayer life and our faith. We do need to respond to subtle nudges from the Holy Spirit. We do need to remember that there are three million people in the UK who told a survey that they would go to church if someone invited them. If we build a culture of invitation, if we run our Masses and other church events as if we are always expecting to introduce a brand-new guest to our community, if we inspire our fellow parishioners to believe we are called to grow, not die, as an institution, we will see fruit. So I would like to expand upon Pope Francis’ words and leave you with this call:

“Friends, evangelisation yes, proselytism no; invitation, always!”

Note to readers: Strictly speaking, Saturday Vespers takes a line from the Gospel of Year A, Sunday Lauds from Year B, and Sunday Vespers from Year C. But it happened to be Year C, as it is this year, so forgive me for over-simplifying for an easy read!